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Former Aipac Head Befriends Syria

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    Former Aipac Head Leads Push for American-Syrian Rapprochement By Marc Perelman Jewish Daily Forward Thu. Aug 28, 2008
    Message 1 of 1 , Aug 31, 2008
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      Former Aipac Head Leads Push for American-Syrian Rapprochement
      By Marc Perelman
      Jewish Daily Forward
      Thu. Aug 28, 2008

      Thomas Dine spent years transforming the American Israel Public
      Affairs Committee into a Washington powerhouse, but now he has
      embarked on a very different mission: building a bridge between the
      United States and Israel's nemesis Syria.

      Dine is currently serving as the head of an American-Syrian working
      group set up early last year by the organization Search for Common
      Ground. It comprises eight high-level figures from each country,
      including former American ambassadors and advisers to the Syrian

      After holding two meetings in Syria over the past year, the group
      organized a visit to the United States in late July for three of its
      Syrian members, during which they met with lawmakers, think-tankers
      and media outlets in Washington, Houston and Los Angeles.

      "This is a classical track-two mechanism where you have governments
      at loggerheads and the private sector steps in to try to bring them
      closer," Dine told the Forward in his first public discussion of his
      role in the outreach effort.

      While Israel and Syria have been engaged in peace negotiations via
      Turkey for several months, and Damascus has recently mended fences
      with several European countries, the Bush administration has
      expressed misgivings about Syria's effort to break out of its
      diplomatic isolation. While many observers believe that no change
      will take place before America's next administration settles in,
      Dine and his comrades are concerned that such a void could lead to
      more tensions in the region.

      Dine said that the working group had laid out a "strategic plan" to
      bring the bilateral relationship "back to normal" within the next
      year, which will be the time needed for a new administration to get
      familiar with the Middle East terrain. In addition to organizing
      meetings here and in Syria, where another one is planned at the end
      of the year, each side is briefing its government.

      The Syrian delegation to the United States was composed of economist
      Samir Seifan, political analyst Sami Moubayed and Samir al-Taqi, a
      think-tank director who advises the government and has been involved
      in unofficial peace negotiations with Israel in recent months. Among
      the American members of the working group are Samuel Lewis, former
      ambassador to Israel, and Theodore Kattouf, former Syrian
      ambassador. Also included are former Rep. Steve Bartlett of Texas,
      former Clinton administration Middle East adviser Robert Malley and
      John Marks, president and founder of Search for Common Ground.

      The initiative has not been all smooth going. The Syrian delegation
      was supposed to include a close aide to President Bashar al-Assad
      and to hold a meeting with the State Department's top Middle East
      official. But Riad Daoudi, a legal adviser to the foreign ministry,
      stayed in Baghdad, and the delegation did not get to see David
      Welch, assistant secretary for Near Eastern Affairs.

      Dine said that Daoudi canceled the meeting because he had to attend
      a briefing about Israeli-Syrian negotiations in Damascus. The State
      Department said the encounter was canceled due to scheduling

      Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma, offers
      another explanation: "Syria wanted to use Dine to open up doors in
      Washington, and he was supposed to get a meeting between Daoudi and
      Welch but could not deliver."

      Dine disputed that assertion and stressed that he had been asked to
      come on board not by the Syrians, but by the head of Search for
      Common Ground. He denied that the Syrian government had been
      involved in the initiative, although he acknowledged discussing the
      schedule of the visit to America with Syria's ambassador to the
      United States, Imad Mustapha, who held a private dinner reception
      with the working group during its stay in Washington.

      Dine also disputed the notion that he had been enlisted in the
      effort because of his Jewish ties, although his previous role at
      Aipac has been mentioned in the Arab press and, as he
      acknowledged, "the Syrians keep introducing me as the former head of

      "I am who I am. I don't hide my Jewishness, but I do this because I
      know people in Washington and because I am committed to re-
      establishing the U.S. position in the region and getting back on
      track with Syria," he said.

      Dine is a veteran Washington Jewish insider who has alternated
      between government jobs and stints in Jewish organizations. After
      serving as a Congressional aide in the late 1970s, he became Aipac's
      executive director in 1980, transforming the organization into a
      major player in Washington politics. He departed in 1993 to work for
      the United States Agency for International Development before
      becoming president of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a position he
      held from 1997 until 2005. He then became CEO of the Jewish
      Community Federation of San Francisco, which he left last year.
      Nowadays he is an adviser to Search for Common Ground as well as the
      dovish Israel Policy Forum.

      To Landis, the administration's backtracking on the Welch meeting
      suggests that "Washington is not ready to become a part of the
      discussion, which means that the Israel-Syria talks will not be able
      to reach a decisive phase."

      While Dine agrees that the administration was indeed showing little
      support for the Israel-Syria negotiations, he claims that major
      progress has been made.

      "The two sides have never been this close," he said. "We are
      reaching a key strategic moment."



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